Innsbruck Air & Style

Innsbruck Air & Style

Europe’s best event eclipsed by tragedy.

By Drew Stevenson

In six years of covering snowboarding, this is the hardest and saddest piece I have ever been asked to write. December 4, 1999, at snowboarding’s night of nights in Innsbruck, we lost five of our own in what can only be described as the most sorrowful moment in the short history of snowboarding.

* * * * *

For those who have never attended the Air & Style, it’s more than a one-night snowboarding contest. It has become, over time, a mecca for riders and spectators alike. The city of Innsbruck comes to life for the event, taking pride in hosting the world’s biggest contest. In Austria and lower Germany it is the must-see event; this year it was bigger and better in almost every way than in years past.

The Air & Style Company, headed by Andrew Hourmont, takes pride in presenting the best show in the business, and becomes more professional every year. This year was no exception: The ramp, infrastructure, security, and running order was better than ever before. The crowd that comes to the Air & Style is what makes the event special and different from any other. Venues such as Moscow, Berlin, and Prague (to name a few), with far larger crowds, make snowboarding come across as more of a novelty attraction. However, at Innsbruck, the 40,000-plus turnout is almost exclusively snowboarders who not only are familiar with all of the participants, but also appreciate what they are doing.

This year’s event ran incredibly smoothly, and the riders put on a show second to none. The big-air contest was lapped up and thoroughly enjoyed by those gathered, and culminated in a super-final with David Benedek, Andrew Crawford, and local hero Stefan Gimpl. During the second jump of the final, David was in third place after his two attempts. Stefan stomped a 900, which put him in first place and resulted in an almost deafening roar from the partisan crowd. Andrew had one chance left to take the contest. As he stood to drop in, he received a warm welcome. It was virtually silent as he approached the kicker, with people split between wishing him luck or hoping for Gimpl. Andrew checked upon landing, and the resulting gaiety was akin to scoring a goal at the World Cup.

While half the crowd stayed to see Stefan Gimpl receive snowboarding’s most coveted prize, a large portion quickly left to avoid the rush down the tight, narrow, switchback paths of the aging Bergisel Stadium for the after-parties in the city of Innsbruck. Everything seemed in perfect order while the awards ceremony was underway, and the remaining crowd celebrated a local victory.

Up until this point, Air & Style ’99 had been the best event to date. The first sign of trouble appeared when the ceremony was over, as the remaining crowd began to leave. One ambulance passed us on the road leaving the stadium, and we could see CPR being administered in the back. The road overlooks Innsbruck, and within seconds we witnessed ambulances, police, and firetrucks speeding from all directions toward the stadium. There was no indication of the severity of the disaster, but it was apparent there had been a major problem of some sort. At this point, most people leaving the stadium were heading to the parties, unaware of what was unfolding, and the riders returned to their hotel to celebrate another great event. At 11:30 p.m., the first news of what had happened reached the riders; it was met with absolute disbelief and shock.

Rescue workers and police sources believe part of the crowd leaving the Olympic stadium on Saturday night had slipped on an icy slope and slid into a barrier that gave way, causing a pileup of people and panic in the mass behind, as reported by the Associated Press. Four Austrians and one Australian, all females aged fourteen to 21, were trampled to death by spectators leaving the stadium. Sixteen peoplle remained hospitalized early Sunday, four of them in comas with life-threatening injuries. The word filtered through to many of the after-parties, but, by this time, it was too much to comprehend after such a good-spirited snowboard gathering.

Innsbruck was in mourning on Sunday as we started to understand the severity of what had happened. Bergisel Stadium was the scene for many mourners carrying candles and groups of people paying their respect. A vigil at Mariane Teresa Strasse, located in the center of Innsbruck, became the heart of a city in shock.

Exactly what happened at Bergisel after the final jump remains unclear. All we know is five girls are dead, and two have since been diagnosed as brain-dead from being deprived of oxygen for too long.

Out of respect for the victims’ families, we have decided not to release a report of the contest itself. It is nearly impossible to believe what happened that weekend.¿Drew Stevenson

For more information on the Air & Style and other snowboarding events go to transworldsnowboarding.com/news